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Yesterday’s thrills, today…

Yesterday’s thrills, today…

Professor Richard Marggraf Turley talks about our obsession with self-tracking and how it inspired him to develop ‘The Vortex’ – a machine that analyses our reactions to sublime and Gothic works.

‘I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying,’ sang John Travolta, dancing off with Olivia Newton John at the end of 1978’s musical spectacular, Grease. Travolta – or rather his screen persona, Danny Zuko – could almost be an early advocate of the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, the name adopted by those who use biometrics to capture as much information as possible about physical aspects of their daily life. As well as temperature (chills, flushes), pulse rate skin conductivity, blood-sugar levels, and most recently mood, can all be tracked, and analysed for trends. For some self-quantifiers – or ‘body-hackers’ – the aim is to live happier, healthier, more productive lives. Others are simply fascinated by the data-streams generated by their own bodies. At any rate, these days if you want to know how many chills you’ve got, and precisely how quickly they’re multiplying, you only need glance at your smart watch or health-and-fitness phone app.

Quantified Romantics Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster_edit2The greaser, Danny, was by no means the first person to notice physical changes taking place in his body in response to a strong stimulus (in his case, a black-clad ONJ). We can trace a fascination with the body’s reaction to visual and imaginative stimuli at least as far back as the Romantic period in Britain, to the 1780s–1820s. In this period, a popular new modality had emerged in art and literature: the Gothic. It aimed to produce emotionally vertiginous shocks and thrills; sensations of any kind, in fact, so long as they put the viewing subject – the ‘Self’ – at the centre of the experience. ‘O for a Life of Sensations!’, declared the poet John Keats, articulating an important aspect of the spirit of the age.

Romantic writers and painters were convinced that ‘sublime’ art and nature – anything that conveyed massiveness, volume, the all-encompassing – provoked a distinctive physical and emotional signature (terror), which others could ‘read’ in the form of a fevered brow, breathlessness, or flushed cheeks. A craze developed among members of the public eager to experience these changes for themselves, moreover in a self-aware manner. Enthusiasts would slog for miles to stand in exactly the right spot to get the full effect of a dizzying precipice, or gaze up at a thunderous waterfall, or contemplate the dark ruins of a medieval abbey. At home, candlelit connoisseurs would turn the pages of the latest gothic shocker to gasp at the nefarious schemes of a priapic monk or uncanny doppelgänger, or fall headlong and senseless into an engraving of towering waves, and black, depthless, watery vortexes. The goal was to overwhelm the senses, to annihilate ‘Self’. In Dany Zuko’s terms, it was all about ‘losing control’ – while loving every minute of it!

Quantified romantics Frankenstein_poster_1931Perhaps Romanticism can lay claim to the first (fictional) Quantified Selfer. In 1816, Mary Shelley drafted her famous gothic novel, Frankenstein, while holed up on the shores of Lake Geneva with the self-exiled Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Byron’s physician, Dr Polidori – author of the The Vampyre (1819), the book that spawned a thousand TV series from Buffy to The Strain. Mary’s classic not only generated chills in its readers, but foregrounded the very issue of how nerves and sinews – the body’s sensorium, or sensing apparatus – came together in the first place. Frankenstein’s creature, obsessed with how he was put together, with the relation between body, mind and emotions, is both proto-embodiment and practitioner of bio-hacking.

The consumer face of self-tracking today – think biometric wristbands like Apple Watch, Android Gear, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone and Fitbit – was first developed in the decade in which Grease topped the billboard charts. Hardly portable, the technology was used mainly by researchers who recognised the potential of analysing personal data to correlate useful information about lifestyle. Only in recent years, with the miniaturisation of components, has the Quantified Self movement entered the mainstream. Most people who use smart watches to ‘drill down’ into their jogging stats, sleep patterns and heart rate probably don’t think of themselves as bio-hackers anymore, which suggests that self-analysis, or self-surveillance, is fast becoming routinised. Indeed, few of us even stop to think about the possible dangers of allowing so much information about our fitness or daily routines to be mined by third parties. Quite aside from issues of personal privacy, there may be companies out there looking for trends in our health data we’d rather they didn’t know about.

For Living Frankenstein, members of the public will be invited to enter – if they dare – The Vortex, a dark enclosure in which they’ll be shown Gothic images. While they experience (we hope) an annihilation of Self, I will be using a package of specially built biometric instruments to measure any changes in pulse rate, and counting chills (multiplying, or otherwise). We’ll also be discussing the wider social and political implications of biometric wearables and other self-tracking technologies.

By Professor Richard Marggraf Turley (Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination, Aberystwyth University). Richard will be participating in our upcoming Living Frankenstein event on 23 May accompanied by his ‘Vortex’, which take bio-metric measurements of audience members as read sections of Frankenstein.
Science and the spark of life

Science and the spark of life

In this post, Dr Emily Alder from Edinburgh Napier University talks about the differing forms of science, technology and knowledge in Frankenstein. 

Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life with ‘a spark of being’. At the time Mary Shelley was writing, scientists were debating the nature of human life. Scientists who favoured ‘vitalism’ held that life (which we might also call consciousness, or the soul) was a kind of substance, added to the physical body. Electricity (for example, through the new process known as Galvanism) was considered a possible explanation for this added substance. Materialist scientists disagreed. They thought life was a product of all the materials that make up the human body.

Either way, these explanations challenged the traditional religious idea that the origin of life is divine. By artificially creating a living being, Victor transgresses the role of God. He also takes over the mother’s reproductive role – the creature only has one parent: Victor. The suggestion that neither women nor God are necessary any more for creating new life made Shelley’s story controversial. This is why we often hear Frankenstein referred to in discussions of genetic engineering or so-called test-tube babies. But Victor’s true mistake is that he does not take responsibility for the consequences of his scientific experiment.

Victor is highly trained in medical and physical science, but the creature’s education is different. At first, he knows nothing at all, and learns by experience. Putting his hand in a fire, he learns that although warmth is nice, flame burns. When people he meets either flee or pelt him with stones, he learns unhappy social facts: he looks monstrous and he is feared and unwanted. He also learns by reading, after he finds Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives in a discarded satchel. Through poetry and prose he learns about religion, morality, and what it means to be a person. From watching Safie and Felix’s family, he also learns about love and family relationships. This makes him believe that his ‘parent’, Victor, was wrong to abandon him, and he turns against the Frankenstein family.

Because the creature and Victor have had such different educations, they see the world differently, make different mistakes, and tell us different versions of the story. We, the readers, are like Robert Walton, who listens to them both. Only then can Walton make the correct decision to abandon his dangerous Arctic expedition and save the lives of his crew. Shelley’s book suggests that if we want to understand the world properly and act in the best way, we need many different kinds of knowledge: not just about science, not just about people, and not just about stories – we need them all.

By Dr Emily Alder (Lecturer in literature, Edinburgh Napier University). Emily Alder will be participating in our upcoming event Living Frankenstein on 23 May.